Trinity of the Adversary

This has probably been mentioned by somebody elsewhere before and perhaps in greater clarity and form. However, I had this original thought yesterday and without much research here it is. I should read more on Clausewitz and researches on him anyway.

In “On War”, one of his more famous theories is on the Trinity of War, comprise of “composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the
creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.” (para 28, Book One On the Nature of War). I have previously mentioned this trinity in an earlier post and shall not repeat it. However, suffice to say that there is a lesser and often confused trinity that is of the people, the military and the government, which correspond somewhat with the three forces mentioned above.

One of the skills of the general or his staff officer is the construct of the enemy or adversary’s state of mind. To emerge victorious over the adversary and achieve one’s aim is the desired end state for the military general. To understand the enemy gives options in the ways to defeat him most effectively and efficiently. In Sun Tzu’ Art of War, he mentions, “Thus, to fight a hundred battles and to win a hundred victories is not a reflection of the most supreme strategy. The ability to subdue the enemy without any battle is the ultimate reflection of the most supreme strategy. ” (3.6 and 3.7) (是故百戰百勝,非善之善者也;不戰而屈人之兵,善之善者也)

Thus, the idea is to strike at the enemy in three ways, at his will, at his strategy and at his forces. In targeting an adversary, one must seek to deter his will to compete. Using means at the national disposal, one can imagine using overt means (showcasing one own’s military might, declaring legitimacy and thus international support for one own’s stand and engaging in economical ties such that it costs the adversary if they choose to fight or compete)  or convert means (social media, to accomplish the ways to deter an adversary in completing. Similarly, we can also look at how we should aim our means to reduce the effectiveness of their strategy, by discrediting them or by shifting the focus of their strategy to a false end. Finally, we can reduce their means of achieving their objectives by removing the means or corrupting it. There are multiple means to achieve any objectives that a general or his staff officer can use. We need to be “over-determining” our success by not limiting our strategy to any single way but by utilizing all of it and making sure we achieve the objectives by the most effective and efficient means.

History, a most important subject

I heard a BBC broadcast titled, “Missing History – China and Japan“. In this broadcast, two journalists traveled to each others’ countries, one from China and the other Japan. In the first episode of this series, the Chinese journalists traveled to Japan and visited several places which were of significance to Japan’s invasion of China, including the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which enshrines the spirits of Japan’s war dead, including several Class A war criminal from World War II. The broadcast was rather emotional for the Chinese journalist as she could not enter the Shrine, knowing what it means to her countrymen. She also had a talk with the ones responsible for changing one of Japan’s history books, which downplayed Japan’s role in the Nanjing Massacre, renaming it as the Nanjing Incident.

While I do not fully disagree in the virtues of moving on from history, history still serves as one of the most important subjects we can ever learn. From the histories of our forefathers, we learn about their purpose in life and what they have done for us. We learn that what we have now was not freely gotten but earned by the toils and blood of our father. Take the recent naming of the Indonesia Warship for an example. After naming two warships after marines who bombed the MacDonald House in Singapore, Indonesia incurred the anger of Singapore who executed the two marines as criminals in 1965. It was only in 1973 when Mr Lee Kwan Yew visited the graves of the two marines that the chapter was considered over. By naming the two warships after these two who killed three Singaporeans, Indonesia re-opened the issue and, allowed Singaporeans to relearn their history lessons and remember that Singapore is still an island between two bigger Muslim states.

Let us not remember history and dishonor our fathers, even as PM Lee honors our pioneer generations now.

Strategy and Life

I have recently stumbled upon an excellent post by Oliver Emberton recently that stuck with me. It wasn’t just his cute 16 bits cartoons that illustrated his points so succinctly or his use of game theory, his philosophy in life is worth pondering too. While I try not to just summaries his points here, some of his points are worth repeating. I do not consider my self a student of strategy but strategy is about making decisions that that will enable you to gain a advantage and in life you make decisions.

What is strategy? Lawrence Freedman published a history of Strategy in his book, “STRATEGY, a history.” Starting from as ancient as Evolution and Biblical times, he explains the origins of strategy in its basic form of strength and deception, bie and metis in Greek. These two are epitomized by Achilles and Odysseus. Freedman goes on to say how there is a limit to both strength and deception. Strength pits itself against another in a frontal manner, seeking to overthrow through pure superiority in resources. Deception, on the other hand, seeks to undermine the opponent through maneuvers and illusions. Strength is limited by resources and deception is limited by the opponent’s awareness.

However, in his explanation of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, he simplifies the great sage’s deception into “simply a matter of doing the opposite of what was expected.” Freedman goes on to say that deception is limited if both commanders deploys Sun Tzu’s deception and are weary of each other’s tactics. While that was part of the thesis, it oversimplify the issue as a either “have” or “have not”. Strategies employed by Chinese generals who read Sun Tzu have displayed varying understanding of the deceptiveness of tactics and the key to non-defeat is to know the enemy. If the enemy is prepared to counter your deception, sometimes, the most frontal assault will work.

International Politics is a reflection of the Domestic Politics Needs

In recent article in The Diplomat, Assistant Professor Kai He wrote about the East China Sea Dispute : What do China and Japan really want? In it, he suggests that it is about managing their domestic expectations that leaders on both China and Japan’s side embark on their current hard stances. It also argues that if US wants to maintain the stability in East China Sea, it needs to understand what the two leaders need in face of their domestic audience.

In recent events closer to home, the Indonesian Navy named two of their frigates after two marines who bombed Singapore’s McDonald’s House in 1965. Both marines were captured and executed by the Singapore government back then. In order to sooth relations, Singapore’s then PM Lee KY visited their graves in 1973. In naming the two frigates after their heroes, the Indonesian government opened up new wounds again in the bilateral relationships with Singapore. What can the reason be? It could be, similar to China and Japan’s leaders’ case, a need to appeal to their domestic population. Naming after the ships after their heroes is a way to remind the Indonesian people that they are still the big boys in the neighborhood and do not need to worry about the smaller fishes. It also instill pride in their nation, causing the population to remember that their independence was won by blood and struggle, something that the newer generation of Indonesian may not remember. After all, their motto of Pancasila was to unite their diverse people under the same Indonesian flag. In the absence of a real enemy, it is always an old trick to dig up some old “safe” conflict to unite under again.

Singaporeans should also likewise remember that our independence and current economic prosperity were not given freely to our fathers. While PM Lee honors the pioneer generation now, it is for a good reason. It is on their blood and toil that we have the current status as the hub of Southeast Asia. Too many of our current generation are taking it for granted.

That being said, we should not take the naming of the two vessels too seriously. It is, as mentioned, probably a gimmick to stir up some excitement as the current Indonesian government heads into their next election in April 2014. Just as we had suffered indignities during Malaysian’s election previously, we may have to be the bogeyman for Indonesia, albeit in a much more distance way. Just wait till they start accusing Singapore of being a tax heaven for their rich citizen or stealing their soil again….


This week, I was fortunate to avail myself an article by J Boone Bartholomees, “Theory of Victory” (here) and Colin Gray’s “Defining and Achieving Decisive Victory” (here). Both are great articles and I find myself ponder the purpose of deciding an outcome in the conduct of war.

Gray argues that the concept of decisive victory in the conduct of military operations is both meaningful and important. This is in view that there are arguments which states that war achieves nothing meaningful other than destruction. This is especially plausible during the Cold War period when the purpose of the military is to prevent an outbreak of total war, nuclear war, that is. Dividing victory at various levels of Operational Level, Strategic Level and Political Level, Gray argues that war has indeed decided the course of history at numerous occasions. While it may not be the intended outcomes of the parties involved, it can nevertheless be considered decisive as it shaped the post war situation into an environment which is acceptable over a period of time. However, the military man must remember that achieving a campaign victory or a victory in the total aspect of war does not guarantee the political outcome desired by the political leaders. It depends on the political leaders to shape that military victory into a political one, accepted by other sides of the war. Since, war is between two parties, it only ends when both sides decides it to be so.

Bartholomees puts forth a theory in which victory may be defined. Taking Gray’s concept of decisive victory, he further expands on the concept that victory and its decisiveness is never an absolute but exists on a scale. Three scales, in fact. The scale of success measure the success of its forces at the battlefield, the scale of decisiveness shows the extent of how the operations affects political issues and finally the scale of achievement measures how well the military has completed the goals it has set out to do. He further points out that as war is between two parties, each side determines its own sets of criteria for victory. In fact, in a war, it is perfectly logical for both sides to be victorious. For it is not determined by loss of material nor territorial gains or loss, but by the parties own internal measurements. The conduct of war itself may change the conditions of victory and victory is useless if it breaks the more successful party economically, politically or socially.

What does this mean to the military man? In the conduct of war, especially long drawn out campaigns, there must be a continued discourse between the military leaders and the political leaders to determine whether the military objectives serve the political. The means and ways must logically linked to the ends and be socially accepted to be so. Much as Bartholomees points out that in cases not as clear cut, it is the population which decides the victory. In the case of modern social media, much as the political leaders would love to, their ability to influence opinions and viewpoints are greatly diminished. To win would not just to remove the opponent’s military forces off the field for it may not even achieve that which is desired. It boils down to breaking the opponent’s will to continue in the engagement. It may be achieved by physical means but the intent of the operations must be directed at the will, convincing the opponent that resistance is going to cost more than he can bear or exceed his perceived gain.

Hybrid Warfare

So I have completed reading a book by Williamson Murray, “Hybrid Warfare : Fighting complex opponents from the ancient world to the present.” Overall, it is an very interesting book, covering from the Roman conquest of the Germanic lands to Vietnam War. At the heart of it, it proposes that the term hybrid war, which seems to be the new term describing the counter-insurgency type of warfare, is not really a new concept. It dates back as far as the 5th century BC and even Napoleon’s army had difficulty going against this type of enemy.

In concluding, Murray states several principles in engaging any form of hybrid warfare. Firstly, while technology and resource superiority can be, it may not be the deciding factor in hybrid warfare. Technology is a tool. Like any tool, it must be used in its correct context for the right purposes. In engaging an enemy in direct confrontation, a technologically superior force may strike a decisive blow to the other force and thus force his opponent to give in to his demands. However, against a force that hide among the civilians, technology still needs intelligence to work. Even the technologically and doctrinally superior Roman army finds it vexing when the Germanic tribes melt into the forest, forcing the Roman army to leave its supporting fortress and fight them in their land.

Secondly, nevertheless, in engaging hybrid warfare, the conventional army still plays a crucial role as it prevents the superior force from taking out the inferior force piecemeal. In the American Revolution, it is the presence of a Continental army that prevents the British from rooting out the rebels and their supporters town by town. The Continental army, though small at first, forces the British to concentrate their force sufficiently in order to counter act them and thus unable to spread their influence throughout the colonies. Of course, there are numerous factors which swung the war.

Thirdly, a deep understanding of the opponent’s framework, culture and their preferred mode of conflict is crucial to any decisive victory. There are numerous causes to why the American’s lose the Vietnam War and one crucial factor is this, that, at least initially, the Americans simply did not understand how the North Vietnamese Army fight. The Americans can take out their bases, the bridges and their factories, but these still would not stop the North Vietnamese from moving using tunnels, people and animals. Their factories were never their central key installations, as they depend on agricultural industries. Similarly, on a larger scale, the military commander needs to understand the strategic framework of both his own policymakers as well as the opponents’ in order to achieve political victory or settlement. As I have talked about the linkages between the strategic, the operational and tactical level of warfare, the linkages are crucial in achieving synergy. My thoughts on the operational art of war here.

Lastly, as Murray puts it, war, hybrid or otherwise, should always be regarded as the last resort as its gains rarely compensates for the loss in lives and treasures. I agree with him, for war is indeed a topic of national importance. As Sun Zi said, “The conduct of war is a matter of vital importance to the nation.” (孙子曰:兵者,国之大事) Fighting a hybrid war further compounds the matter as the costs goes beyond the military. Thus, only fight hybrid wars if fundamental interests of the state is at stake.

What does these all mean? In any declaration of war, victory can never simply mean the takeover of certain estates or territory. Just as Napoleon and Hilter learned, Russia’s strategic depth allows it to simply pull back, denying its opponents the crucial victory while letting the Motherland whittler them to frost. Colin Gray talks about the decisive victory here but I shall not go into this yet.

It does mean that a deep understanding of the other side is crucial in understanding the method required to achieve any strategic outcome. It may not and hopefully not resort to warfare. However, when it comes down to warfare, the military commander must not and cannot hesitate to strike at the heart of the enemy. Hybrid war breeds when one side, though militarily weaker, does not give up and thus seeks to continue the struggle by means other than a direct confrontation. A commander who hesitates in striking out at their centre at the onset and compelling the other side to capitulate will only prolong the conflict and prevent it from reaching a conclusive end

Projection of Force and War

It has been a while since my last post and I am refusing to go back to my ‘normal’ mode of life where there is a lack of thought and reflection. So here are somethings I have been reading on.


In any expeditionary campaign, the ability to project effective force to accomplish operational objectives, in order to fulfill strategic goals, showcases the reach of a global power. Genghis Khan did it with his marauders. His objectives were not to rule, conquer nor occupy. He may have thoughts of a great empire, but the Mongolians’ nomadic way of life does not allow him to crave out an empire outside his immediate families and trusted subordinates. Napoleon reached  out with his combined military might and his empire stretched across Europe. This is, until he overstretched into Russia and the insurgencies in Spain sapped his strength just before his death. The United Kingdom, in Pax Britannia ruled over its empire of colonies with its navy as well as the Englishman’s ability to subject his colonies with an acceptable rule.

How fares the latest empire now, the United States? A most benign superpower the world has ever seen. Its enormous capability to industrialize itself during the two World Wars and technological advances enabled the US to project its forces to most parts of the world. However, is this force effective? Numerous examples from the Vietnam War, Iraq War and the current Afghanistan’s counter-terrorism operations has shown that the US has mixed results in influencing the targeted region and its people. They may have neutralized the armed forces, but the people of the region may not have been brought to heel.

The trend on insurgencies, asymmetric warfare and “hybrid wars” is not a new one. No matter what the operations has been called, conventional or counter-insurgency, war is war. War is the continuation of politics by other means. It is to force your will upon the adversary. War is not won until one side gives up. Unlike chess where the capture of the opponent’s king signals a victory and all pieces of the game are displayed clearly, war does not have an end otherwise defined by the players. Combatants of war are also not clearly demarcated as to which side they are in.

It becomes necessary for the military commander to understand the political and social objectives of his own own in order to determine the goals at which his forces and actions may be directed. He must also understand the adversary. To know the context in which the order side operates in, in order to force a situation in which his opponent deems his goals unachievable or too costly to be accomplished. Only then, can the commander of a force fulfill the national interests and deny his adversary his.